“Dude, you just got mooned!”, he quipped. Indeed. I’m staring at my laptop in disbelief. Did that really happen?
Video chatting with random strangers, what else should I expect? But this was no Chatroulette. And these were no strangers. Au contraire. I was testing our video chat product at Spotlife, a startup company I co-founded during the dot-com boom. And I had just witnessed the naked posterior of my employee’s wife splashed in all its white glory on my screen.
Being a manager at a startup is very challenging. For most, it’s often a first time opportunity to lead others. And because startups rarely invest in training, and the opportunity for being mentored are sparse, new managers are left to their own devices to figure things out.
As a young engineering leader, I certainly did not anticipate that those situations would arise out of a software development project. In retrospect, the mooning incident was the most benign and humorous offense I had to deal with.
At one startup, some of the engineers liked to smoke pot in the office. Apparently it made them more creative. That may have been the case, but the company was growing and the idiosyncrasies of those few became harder to tolerate by all.
“The engineers had to be told that the coffee table drawer in the lounge area was not a suitable storage for their private ‘stash’.”
As managers, we try to get the best out of each person, regardless of their peculiarities, but it is also our responsibility to maintain a professional work environment that’s suitable for everyone.
After several mornings of thorough aeration to rid the office of the lingering smell from the evening festivities, I realized I had to do something about it.
We discussed what was going on and (gasp!) adopted a policy of not smoking joints in the office. However, habits die hard and this problem kept surfacing periodically.
The engineers had to be told that the coffee table drawer in the lounge area was not a suitable storage for their private “stash”.
I had to remind them that smoking in the back alley was not a smart move since the windows were often open and the smoke would permeate the entire office.
I had to repeatedly warn an engineer that I did not care what he did at home but he could not be stoned while at work.
Those were uncomfortable conversations to have. When you’re the manager, however, you have to do it because no one else will. And if you let it go by, you set the bar for the kind of behavior that’s tolerated, and tacitly accept it.
One the one hand I was dealing with competent engineers, on the other, they engaged in activities that were not acceptable, even in a startup environment.
Drug consumption, and the legality associated with it, was not necessarily the only problem I encountered. At other companies, there were engineers drinking too much at the office. There is a line between drinking socially at the Friday beer bash and knocking down bottles of wine at your desk.
Office romance can also become an issue when the flirting is so blatantly uncalled for that it makes you cringe. Whether it was the executive having an affair with the intern or the married man who got too cozy with a young female engineer, it made everyone around uncomfortable.
And at some point it turned surreal, when one employee brought his weapons into the office, ostensibly as a form of intimidation because of an imminent layoff.
Regrettably, brutality, drug addiction, alcohol abuse and adultery are a part of the fabric of our society, so at some level we should not be surprised to encounter those at work as well.
Regardless, it’s our job to address conducts that encroach on the healthy work environment we deserve. Here’s how:
- Communicate what the company’s values are and what kind of environment you want to foster.
- Call up the individuals who engage in a behavior that is not inline with those standards. Help them make the distinction between what they can do at work vs. at home.
- Don’t expect HR to resolve it for you. Take ownership of the problem.
- Be swift. Those issues never go away on their own. Address them immediately.
- Be prepared to fire the employee if the situation does not get resolved to your satisfaction. Remember, no one is irreplaceable.